Liz Boulter, The Guardian, March 24, 2014
At first I wasn't sure anything was happening; a second later I knew this would be a sight I'd never forget. Within 10 seconds the tiny almost-glow at the top of the mountain had grown to cover the whole face of Kanchenjunga, third-highest mountain in the world. And within two minutes all five white-capped peaks of the range, whose name means "Five Treasure Houses of Snow", were bathed in rosy light.
It was 5.50am in the north of West Bengal, where India meets Bhutan, Nepal and China. I returned to the piled quilts and hot-water bottle of my bed, marvelling that the vista of India's highest mountain and the whole south-east wall of the Himalayas was just there, for me to feast my eyes on throughout our stay at Neora Valley Jungle Camp.
Quilts, hottie … in India? My friend Kalpana and I had been warned to pack thermals for a stay at over 6,000ft, but we'd still been taken aback by after-dark temperatures of around 3C, in a country that doesn't really do heating. But you'd put up with a lot for such peace, clean air and blue skies – particularly after the noise and dirt of Kolkata. Our cottage had two balconies, from which we gazed at valleys covered with rice terraces, then ridges rising to the snowy peaks. I instantly understood why all-seeing Kanchenjunga is worshipped as a god by the local Lepcha and Rai tribes.
The British Raj made the most of these uplands, establishing a hill station at Darjeeling, 80km to the west. Today, that town is busy with touts and tourists, and trekking routes in Singalila national park are well-known. But Neora Valley national park has stayed under the radar, attracting mostly Indian visitors plus the odd western twitcher; almost a third of its biologically rich 88 sq km is still virgin.
Recently, however, ethical tourism organisations and NGOs have been spreading the word that visitors can be a boon to such precious areas, bringing income and promoting conservation. These mountains are, for example, home to cute-as-cute red pandas, and farmers persuaded that the animals are a tourist draw are less likely to fell their bamboo groves for crops or timber.
Neora Valley Jungle Camp was started in 2007 by India operator Help Tourism, on a profit-sharing basis with nearby Kolakham village, which tumbles down the hillside below. That was an easy sentence to write, but undersells the hard work that must have gone into building the lodge, with its six en suite cottages. The slope into which the camp is built is 1 in 1.6. Just moving around is quite a workout, never mind hauling logs or cement.
As well as the Jungle Camp where we stayed, the area is now starting to offer homestays, simple rooms (always with that view) and three home-cooked, mostly vegetarian, meals a day for little over £10 a head.
The camp offers villagers a ready market for milk, vegetables and spices. And the lodge's kitchen offered Kalpana and me delights made mainly from organic ingredients bought in Kolakham. Breakfasts, different each day, included a Nepalese speciality called sel puri. Similar to Spain's churros, these were made of dough "piped" into hot oil from a fist, and served with a dish of spiced fresh peas with soft cheese that I could happily eat every day. At other meals the delicious curries, several with vegetables we'd never seen before, got their kick variously from ginger, pepper or mustard, as well as the local dalle chillies. The latter are sometimes called Himalayan cherries but – yowza! – you wouldn't want to mistake them.
We were up before dawn again two days later, to drive deep into the national park to try to catch its inhabitants at their liveliest, soon after sunrise, with guide Joseph Lepcha. The tribal surname means "son of the soil", but Joseph has made the air and sky his business, with 14 years' experience as a birding guide.
"Walk slowly," he admonished, as we yomped up the trail trying to get warm. Soon our heads were spinning with bar-throated sivas and white-browed shortwings and several others of the 314 species in this park. Most special were the green-tailed sunbirds. Found only above 7,000ft, they were jewel-like in red, yellow and orange, with iridescent blue heads: green tails were their least remarkable feature.
Heading back to the camp felt like going home – albeit a home where you could see your breath in every room, except the cosy kitchen. There, maid Shanti was singing beautifully as she made momos – moreish stuffed Tibetan dumplings, and owner Mr Paul was keen to talk about philosophy and English literature. Grandad figure Kem Baradur is under five feet tall, but he'd easily hoisted my case on to his shoulder and, even at 65, he maintains the 3km of piping that brings water to the lodge from high in the park, and gathers firewood. He spends hours tramping in the jungle most days, just seeing what's new.
And he's not unusual: these people are living proof of the advantages of organic veg and exercise. Many of the octogenarians around here are hale enough to take on the murderously steep and rocky 7km trek to Lava, a "town" of 500 people. It's quite the metropolis, though, on market days, when fleets of 4WD taxis bring in tribespeople plus their wares. A group of jolly elderly ladies waved from the back of one, their elaborate nose jewellery quivering.
Dominating Lava is its monastery, with a riot of prayer flags, and two monks in deep-red robes looking fantastically picturesque against blue sky and white mountains. Both 20, they told us they had been at the monastery since they were seven or eight. I asked about their day: prayer 4.30am, breakfast 7.30am, classes including English lessons (one former teacher, Beki, co-presented Top Gear before becoming a Buddhist nun), and hours of debating. But they were interested in our lives, too, and asked what I would be writing about.
There is so much, I told him. Neora Valley has long been a wildlife-lovers' destination, but it is spreading its wings: a new adventure company in Pedong offers rock climbing, mountain biking and more. Over the next ridge, the village of Sillery Gaon calls itself "The New Darjeeling": homestays in new chalets there cost £22 for two.
And, in the most telling sign that this area is now open for business, I heard it whispered that one new homestay up the road has, gasp, central heating.
• The trip was provided by On The Go Tours (020-7371 1113, onthegotours.com) which offers a four-day/three-night package at Neora Valley Jungle Camp from £595pp (two sharing) including full board, return flights to Kolkata, transfers, guided walks, a half-day jeep safari and park fees. Accommodation in Kolkata was provided by the Park Hotel (+91 1800 102 7275, theparkhotels.com), which has doubles from £69 room only
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk